By Jane Voigt
Ernests Gulbis is one of those tennis players you want to like. He’s a mad genius at the game, yet fails miserably at consistency. He was number ten in 2014, but came into Wimbledon ranked 589.
Today he upset the 29th seed Juan Martin del Potro, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(0).
“Everybody knows how good he is on grass,” Del Potro told the press, afterword.
Honestly, that’s not true. The more accurate statement would’ve been: Gulbis is good on all surfaces. He’s the guy you don’t want to see across the net because you never know when he’ll bring his best, which can and has beaten the best or, if he will act like Bernard Tomic and come ever so close to tanking.
“I have to say I didn’t expect this score,” an ESPN analyst said, early in the match. “My goodness he lost first round in a Challenger.”
“It’s a wonder that it’s been a bit routine for Gulbis,” Patrick McEnroe said from another desk at ESPN.
Those are the words we use when the Latvian revives his career over and over. He has been sidelined recently by shoulder, calf and wrist problems, which are legitimate reasons for poor performance. However, since coming back on the tennis scene this year he’s lost 3 times in qualification tournaments, two of them Masters 1000 tournaments. He’s retired at a Challenger. And, at The French Open he lost to Marin Cilic in the opening round. This poor record lead no one to expect he could make such a bold statement against Del Potro today.
Yet he persistently and comprehensively showed off masterful serves, a killer backhand that pinned DelPotro to the baseline, and a somewhat modified forehand that used to look as if he was surfing an ocean wave.
American Mardy Fish, who retired from the game several years ago, was unequivocal about the threat Gulbis poses. Fish’s backhand was his best asset, during his career.
“His forehand has gone through a bunch of transformations,” Fish began, on ESPN. “His two-handed backhand, though, is one of the best in the world. [Playing him] I really felt uncomfortable.”
Just look at these stats from Gulbis’s match today: smacked 25 aces; won 82% of points on his first serves and 57% on his second serves; and crunched 20/24 at the net.
The victory set up a third-round encounter with his friend and number two seed, Novak Djokovic, who defeated Adam Pavlasek of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, today. The two have known each other since their junior years when they trained with Nici Pilic at his academy in Germany. The last time they met at a major was at the 2013 French Open semifinal. A highly touted match went flat with Djokovic adding to his head-to-head, 6-1.
But with Djokovic not well balanced nowadays, Gulbis could prove difficult. Both have their mercurial moments. Gulbis, more open about his qualms with existence death and the meaning of tennis in his life, was asked recently why he still plays.
“Tennis is a great part of our lives, it can be very frustrating, it can be very inspiring, it’s a beautiful thing,” he told Sports360. “But, for me, it’s an instrument of self-understanding and I think anything you do in your life should be some kind of instrument to better understand yourself. That’s the most important thing … to understand yourself through the things you do.”
Understanding why he smashed many a tennis racquet during a match surely, then, must be part of his growth.
“There are times, of course, when it’s very frustrating but it’s also part of it and if you understand it on a deeper level, if you can analyze what comes out of it, then you can keep on doing this.”
Born into a family of great wealth, Gulbis has been challenged by accusations of low motivation. He has money so why stop partying, smoking cigarettes, getting caught with prostitutes?
“I’m not doing this for earning money or popularity,” he began. “I’m doing this because I know it makes me a better man. As soon as I understand that I can’t gain anything from doing this [tennis], I’m going to stop.”
Gulbis is comfortable talking. That he is a superb athlete and tennis player sometimes conflicts with his penchant to analyze, read Russian literature in Russian, and raise a ruckus with inappropriate comments.
“You start to understand how you’re treating people when you’re winning and you’re losing,” he said. “You see these things, why something is changing. And as soon as you think about it, this process makes you, in some way, I wouldn’t say better or worse, but you evolve into something. It’s not for me to judge. Let’s leave it at that.”
Gulbis is actively searching for a new coach, but will be a tough critic of the one who lands the job. He had been coached by Gunter Bresnik, the man who currently coaches Dominic Thiem. Gulbis also spent a short time alongside Larry Stefanki, former coach of Andy Roddick and John McEnroe. That’s where Gulbis modified his forehand from the surfer Joe technique to one more consistent and less painful for his wrist.
He has not won a title in three years, his total remaining static at 6. He slipped outside the top 100 last August, as well. With his talent, though, he doesn’t need but an instant to explode into something truly competitive against top players.
Disappointment and discouragement could have stopped Gulbis, though, with all the injuries plus ups and downs of his career. But he sees it as extra motivation.
“It’s not that big of a tragedy,” he began. “I’m the kind of player as soon as I get two wins I can win the tournament — I still believe that.”
Perhaps some of this positive outlook has been affected by his engagement to Tamara Kopaleyshvili.
“I think that’s the most important thing for a man or for a woman is to find their true love or their true partner for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Marriage is beyond tennis.”
Gulbis’s victory over Del Potro today had one glitch. He was up a break in the third set and lost the advantage. That little slip of concentration and technique could have sent him on an alternate trajectory, especially against Del Potro. He’s a Grand Slam and Davis Cup champion. Del Potro came close to winning the third, but lost in a tiebreak. If he had taken it and the match extended to, say, five sets, bets would’ve been strongly against Gulbis to win.
“It’s like he’s come into this tournament as one of the favorites, Gulbis thinks,” said the ESPN commentator.